I can’t decide which would be worse….that I never even thought of Shawn Mitchell’s “Ready, set, goal” lead in his Columbus Dispatch game story—which is what happened—or if I had separately thought of it and then saw it in the paper before I had a chance to use it myself. The more I pondered, the more it didn’t matter, because Justin Meram scoring nine seconds into the MLS Eastern Conference Finals, setting the tone for a 2-0 Columbus Crew SC victory over the visiting New York Red Bulls, was way more awesome than any clever words about it could ever be. (But make no mistake, Shawn’s lead was terrific and I wish I’d thought of it.)
Enough navel-gazing. Let’s look back at a gloriously frigid and exciting night in front of a standing room only Columbus-record playoff crowd of 21,617.
J9. AS IN SECONDS.
Justin Meram, frequently known as “J9” on account of his jersey number, put Columbus on the board just nine seconds into the game as a result of a kickoff play that Crew SC likes to run. It’s pretty simple really. Drop the kickoff back to Wil Trapp. Have him hold it for a second and then lump a long ball toward Kei Kamara. Then let Kamara flick the ball on to a runner or two. Then see what happens.
This play has twice produced goals in the past. On August 2, 2014, in a pre-Kamara execution of the play, Federico Higuain scored from the run of play just nine seconds into the second half in Bridgeview against the Chicago Fire. Then on July 19, 2015, the play resulted in the fastest penalty kick in MLS history when Ethan Finlay was taken down eight seconds into the game while chasing Kamara’s flick. That was also against Chicago.
On Sunday, November 22, 2015, the first not-against-the-Fire successful execution of the play produced the fastest playoff goal in MLS history. Both Finlay and Meram chased after Kamara’s flick-on header. Finlay attempted to nod the ball to Meram but got cleaned out with an NFL style hit in the box. The ball nevertheless deflected into Meram’s path and J9 ripped it into the net to give Crew SC a vital 1-0 lead. The ball hit the net before butts hit the seats. The kickoff streamers were still in the air when the goal celebration streamers were launched.
“It’s a play we work on,” Meram said. “I was lucky enough that the ball fell to me and I put it away. It’s one of those moments that you wait for in your life and I’m just blessed and thankful for my teammates and everyone that put me in this position to put that goal in.”
According to Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp, the play had a slightly different wrinkle this time around. Normally Kamara runs a fly route. He just sprints straight down the right side of the field. This time, moments before kickoff, Kamara mentioned that he was going to start on the left and make a diagonal run to his spot. Trapp noted that running diagonally at Ronald Zubar drew Matt Miazga out a little bit, which created the space for Meram when the ball fell his way.
“Kei made a great play,” Trapp said, “and Ethan made a great play—he got destroyed—and then Justin’s eyes were probably as big as they’ve ever been when that ball bounced to him, and then it was a great finish.”
The Black & Gold were celebrating a lead before more than half of them even touched the ball for the first time.
“You almost don’t believe it,” Trapp said. “It’s like, ‘Oh wow!’ It was that quick. Then excitement takes over and you want to play more. It’s like, ‘This is the perfect start we could have asked for, now let’s see what else we can do.’”
What they could do was get a second goal and a shutout, allowing them to head to New York with a 2-0 aggregate lead. When all was said and done, and the victory had been secured, all Meram could do was shake his head and smile when reflecting on scoring a goal nine seconds into the game.
“The stars align sometimes,” he said. “Nine seconds. Nine’s my favorite number. It’s my (jersey) number. It’s my good luck number. It’s the number that’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life. No better time to score that in the 9th second.”
POINT / COUNTERPOINT: KICKOFF GOAL
Sometimes contrasting quotes really jump out at you. I thought it would be fun to present these quotes about the kickoff goal in point / counterpoint format.
New York head coach Jesse Marsch
“We talked all week about those kinds of plays and them playing direct to Kamara and Finlay running off and we don’t do well enough. Purely don’t do well enough on a play that we talked about and prepared for all week.”
New York goalkeeper Luis Robles
“I think if we would have known that they were going to do that, we probably would have defended better. I don’t know. For whatever reason, we were caught so off guard.”
THE SECOND GOAL
Does this look like the recipe for a goal?
Crew SC midfielder Cedrick Mabwati has the ball just inside the New York penalty area. There are eight Red Bull field players within view, plus goalkeeper Luis Robles. That’s a total of nine Red Bulls. Kei Kamara is the only other Columbus player in the box. Seconds later, this somehow became a goal.
Cedrick dribble-danced his way around three defenders and got off a shot that forced a fingertip save from Robles. Kamara rushed in and tapped the rebound into the empty net in the 85th minute. Somehow that situation became a goal.
According to Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, the second goal actually started with an observation from the bench. But not by him. Berhalter gives credit where credit is due.
“I think a lot of credit goes to our assistant coach Josh Wolff, who pointed out how fatigued [Ronald] Zubar and [Kemar] Lawrence were,” Berhalter said. “They were struggling and Cedrick is the perfect weapon to put in at that time because he’s electric. He has pace and he showed it a couple times today.”
Most importantly, he showed it while going 2v9 and creating the all-important second goal.
“Cedrick has come in the last two games and really changed it,” said Crew SC captain Michael Parkhurst. “His presence out there, his one-on-one ability, and his quickness cause problems for defenders, especially late in the game when you see him come fresh on the field. It’s not fun, I’m sure, for those guys. It’s fun for us. He’s probably the only one on the team to do what he did and get that shot off. He’s fantastic.”
Soccer has always mystified me on how stingy it is with the awarding of assists. With scoring at such a premium, you’d think the sport would want to do a better job of quantifying who created goals. Goals are kind of important, you know? It might be good to use a common and easily understood statistic to let people know who makes them possible.
Both Columbus goals were officially unassisted on Sunday. Kamara’s flick-on header, although vital in the creation of the goal, was a statistical non-entity. Ethan Finlay’s touch while getting crushed like a wide receiver going over the middle was also a statistical non-entity. This is because the ball took a deflection off of New York defender Matt Miazga. Therefore, it statistically negated all of the brilliant work by Kamara and Finlay. The box score will forever show that Meram scored unassisted, as if he had dribbled half the New York team by himself, even though Kamara and Finlay played huge roles in creating that goal, which was scored with a first-touch finish. It wouldn’t have been possible without them, but they will get zero statistical credit.
Soccer’s insistence of minimizing assists is even more criminal on Crew SC’s second goal. Cedrick made that goal. That goal never comes close to happening without Cedrick. He created something out of nothing and gets zero official credit for it because Luis Robles got the tips of his fingers on the ball while making an almost impossible save. Kamara smartly followed the play and finished the easy tap-in, but the record books will forever show that Kamara scored unassisted, as if Cedrick’s brilliance in creating that goal never existed. Ridiculous. Get it together, soccer.
SECOND GOAL VS. CLEAN SHEET
As the game wore on, the playoff format posed an interesting dilemma—does Columbus go for the second goal or play to preserve the shutout? A second goal would give them a two-goal lead in the aggregate goal series. A shutout, however, would deny New York an all-important away goal, since that is the first tie-breaker. (Likewise, Marsch said that the Red Bulls had to decide about trying for the equalizer or packing it in to go home down just 1-0.)
Of course, it was the best of both worlds for Columbus. They got the second goal AND preserved the shutout. Now a single goal at Red Bull Arena could all but end the series. A single Columbus tally would mean that New York would have to score four goals to advance.
But during the game, when it was 1-0, the second goal vs. clean sheet dilemma was an interesting one for me to ponder, so I posed the question to a couple of the guys.
“I think, for me, the shutout’s the most important part,” said Wil Trapp. “I think we’re confident that on the road, we can possibly get a goal. Any time you leave yourself with no road goals is huge moving forward. The way we’re attacking, and Kei’s scoring goals and other guys are contributing, like I said, we’re confident.”
“We talked about it at halftime that it was paramount that we keep it at zero,” said Parkhurst. “Of course we would push for the second goal, but we also want to be smart. The away goal’s important, so I’m really proud of the team that we were able to keep that zero because it’s really big. It puts us in a good spot.”
It’s a good thing that, ultimately, the second goal vs. the clean sheet dilemma is not an either/or proposition. Columbus was able to execute the halftime talk and accomplish both.
“Yeah,” Parkhurst said, “it worked out really well for us.”
WAHL AND THE CLEAN SHEET
Speaking of the clean sheet, Columbus became the first team to shut out the Red Bulls since a 2-0 loss to Philadelphia on May 24. And the Black & Gold did it without starting center back Gaston Sauro, who was suspended for yellow card accumulation. Sauro was replaced by veteran Tyson Wahl and the defense did a better job against the Red Bulls than anyone had in almost six months to the day.
“To put a guy like Tyson Wahl in there and not skip a beat is pretty special and shows the depth of this team,” Ethan Finlay said. “When you need a guy to step up, he does. All the guys in the back, [goalkeeper] Steve [Clark] included, deserve a lot of credit.”
Berhalter was particularly pleased with Wahl’s performance, especially given that he is such a team player.
“I’m really proud of Tyson because he’s the guy that played a role, obviously, mid-season and did a good job and then lost his spot to Gaston,” Berhalter said. “He doesn’t complain. He’s always there for the team, he always trains hard, and he is always focused. He’s a guy that leads by example and you need players like that. When his number was called he did a great job so I’m really proud of his performance tonight.”
Captain Michael Parkhurst bristled (although in his usual calm, eloquent way) when a reporter asked if Sauro’s return would give the team a boost in the second leg. After all, from Parkhurst’s perspective, what could possibly be better than a shutout and holding a player like Bradley Wright-Phillips to basically one decent chance?
“I think saying that there’s an advantage to having Gaston back would be a disservice to what Tyson did tonight,” Parkhurst said. “I thought he was fantastic. It’s a very difficult position as a center back to not play for a few weeks and then come in here in a game of that intensity, of that pace, and he was fantastic against one of the best strikers in the league. He was fantastic. It’s great to have that.”
One would assume that Sauro will likely reclaim his starting role now that his suspension is over. After all, he won the job and has played exceptionally well down the stretch and into the playoffs. Parkhurst, however, wanted to stress that he is confident in both Sauro and Wahl, and that Sunday’s result against the Red Bulls justifies that twin confidence.
“They’re both professionals and they’re playing on this team in the playoffs for a reason, and that’s because they’re both really good,” Parkhurst said of Sauro and Wahl. “We’re confident no matter who plays.”
PROPS TO PIPA
Berhalter frequently talks about how the things that Fedrico Higuain does for this team go well beyond the box score. On Sunday, Higuain had a stellar game in all those various non-goal/non-assist ways. His passing, his defensive pressure, his dictating the pace, his working out of trouble, his recovery and challenges after Crew SC lost possession…all of it was in top form on the big stage that is the Eastern Conference Championship.
“He was amazing,” Berhalter said of Higuain’s game one performance. “As much as people respect what type of player he is, I still think he’s underrated. I really do. He’s fantastic. The work rate, the effort, the control. He’s outstanding. You see how much he wants it. He leads by example every single game.”
Parkhurst elaborated on what Higuain’s play means to the other guys on the field.
“When he’s on top of his game, he’s one of the best number tens in the league,” he said. “He was very good tonight. It’s nice to have. It’s a calming presence. When the game is so hectic and so fast, you can play to him and he slows it down a little bit and he’s also able to withstand some pressure when doing so. He’s a big, big key for us, even if he’s not scoring goals. We’re going to need him again next week.”
POINT / COUNTERPOINT: TACTICAL FOULS
By most accounts, including Simon Borg’s review of the officiating on MLSsoccer.com, referee Allen Chapman had a solid game. New York committed ten fouls and Crew SC committed nine. The only yellow card issued in the game was to Crew SC centerback Tyson Wahl for the Black & Gold’s five fouls against Sacha Kljestan, although Borg felt that New York midfielder Dax McCarty was fortunate to escape a yellow on a reckless tackle. Other than that, not much to complain about. Well, unless you feel that Crew SC systematically destroyed the game by intentionally fouling at every opportunity like a trailing NBA team. So let’s do another point / counterpoint!
New York head coach Jesse Marsch
“They were committing a lot of tactical fouls. We tried to stay on the referee but he didn’t want to pull a card from his pocket. I understand that in a big game you don’t want to just start handing out yellows, but we felt that there were a few more out there, and that might have prevented them from stopping the counter quickly when they lost the ball. They knew they weren’t going to be able to pass through us so they knew they had to make certain adjustments…
“…They were just tactically fouling us and the referee didn’t want to do anything about it. They had a lot of guys in the field who basically had a yellow to give because if they pick up a yellow this game they can’t be suspended for the final, so it’s a tactic. It’s a tactic. I don’t think the referee did a good enough job with that.”
Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp
“I don’t remember talking about that this week.”
TWO QUICK FRANKIE STORIES
When I saw Columbus Dispatch columnist Michael Arace after the game, he told me that he called the score during a Saturday night telephone conversation with Frankie Hejduk.
“I told him I was feeling a dos a cero,” Arace said. “I swear. You can ask him.”
“Dude, he totally did,” Hejduk confirmed. “I told him I was feeling 3-1. But this morning, when I was talking to Weston (Apelfeller) and the grounds crew guys, I changed my mind and told them I was feeling 2-0. But Arace totally called it last night.”
The second Frankie story involves the fastest playoff goal in MLS history.
Prior to Meram’s tally at the nine-second mark on Sunday, the record was held by the Crew’s Adrian Paz, who scored 26 seconds into a playoff game in Tampa Bay on September 28, 1996. That would be Frankie Hejduk’s 1996 Tampa Bay Mutiny.
“Dude, I have no memory of that,” he said. “I was probably on the field for it, and I’m sure I was pretty bummed out about it at the time, but I don’t remember that at all, dude.”
After our conversation, I looked up the box score and it turns out that Frankie was NOT on the field for it. It was the only match of the three game series that Hejduk did not start. He entered the game as a 27th minute substitute, so it’s not like he had any role in the goal being scored. That’s surely why he doesn’t remember it.
In what has become a puzzling playoff postgame ritual, the Berhalter press conference is usually preceded by the sound of Adele blasting out of the Crew SC locker room. As astoundingly excellent of a singer as she is, when one thinks of raucous postgame locker room celebration music, one’s mind does not usually leap to Adele. As the two of us chatted with Trapp after the game, MLSsoccer.com’s Andrew King was the one to finally ask about why Adele is the postgame jam of choice.
“I don’t know,” Trapp said. “We were in here one day and it was after training and Steve [Clark] put it on the day after it was released and everyone was losing it. It was just kind of funny.”
Adele first became a pregame jam before the first leg playoff match in Montreal, but after Crew SC lost to the Impact, she was barred from the pregame playlist. Now Adele is strictly for celebrating victories.
“We listened to it before the Montreal game in Montreal, and Gregg was like, ‘No more Adele before the games,’” Trapp said with a laugh. “So at least we get her after.”
[NOTE: Andrew now has a full report on Adele. Check it out here.]
SPEAKING OF GREAT SINGERS…
Julia Trapp did her usual stellar job in singing the Star Spangled Banner before Sunday’s game. The 2-0 victory was a bit of redemption for Julia. Over the course of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Crew SC was unbeaten and untied when Julia sang the national anthem. Then came last year’s disastrous 4-2 playoff loss to New England. Although the regular season results were mixed this year when Julia sang the anthem, I held out hope that she was gearing up for a stellar playoff performance in which her voice would once again propel Columbus to victory. It happened on Sunday. Mojo restored.
“She blew it last year, but this year she crushed it,” said her brother Wil, who was joking about the final scores of the playoff games, not her singing ability, which is beyond repute. “She crushed it. I got to say hi to her this time. Usually she’s further away so I don’t get to say hi to her, but this time I did. She did an awesome job.”
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE SECOND LEG
The 2-0 win has put the Black & Gold in a great spot heading into the second leg. New York is going to need a two-goal win just to level the series, and if Crew SC scores a goal, the Red Bulls are going to need to pump at least four goals past Steve Clark in order to win the series.
The situation looks good, but Berhalter wants his players to know that advancing to MLS Cup is far from a done deal.
“We’re still going to have to play,” he said. “This series is not over. Trust me. They’re going to come out hot in Harrison. It’s going to be a tough game. We’re going to do our best to try to score a goal. We’ve been scoring away from home virtually all year, so we’re going to try and do that again and put some pressure on them.”
“I just think we have to stay within ourselves and manage the game,” Ethan Finlay said when asked about the second game. “Our goal was setting ourselves up for the second leg and I think we have done that very well tonight. Saying that, we still have 90 minutes or maybe more possibly to play and I think we are going to be ready for them.”
For Justin Meram, a good start is going to go a long way toward helping the Black & Gold in New York. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a goal nine seconds into the game, but they need to hold New York at bay for a little while.
“I think we need to start off on the right foot,” Meram said. “We don’t want to let them score quick, like we did to them, and get that momentum early. I think if we knock the ball around and make them chase, they’re going to be a little desperate, and that’s when you can exploit them.”
Especially as a local guy, you’d think maybe someone like Wil Trapp could get caught up in the notion that Crew SC is just 90 minutes, or even likely just one goal scored, away from advancing to the second MLS Cup final in club history. But he’s not.
“It’s funny, man,” he said. “I’m not really thinking about it. I’m just thinking it’s just another game. That’s a testament to this group for being so focused on executing our game plan. Moments haven’t been too big for us so far. I think that’s a credit to the coaches for keeping it about our style of play and playing for each other.”
MLS CUP DREAMS
Berhalter and his players are rightfully, and necessarily, focused only on the next game and what they need to do to be successful. Inside the locker room, that is the correct attitude to have. But the rest of us can dream, right?
With Crew SC’s 2-0 win over New York and Portland’s 3-1 victory over Dallas, the odds are heavily tilted in favor of Columbus hosting Portland in MLS Cup 2015. It doesn’t mean it’s going to play out that way, but it’s a very real possibility.
I get chills just thinking about it. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for Crew SC to play a home match in MLS Cup. These two home playoff games have already been insane. The Montreal game was an off the charts emotional roller coaster capped by supreme euphoria. The New York game was played before a standing-room-only crowd of 21,617. The club had to install additional seats just to meet the ticket demand. There were times where you could feel the vibrations in the radio booth’s floor as the fans above and below all stomped their feet in anticipation of corner kicks and free kicks. The energy in the stadium had gone from potential to kinetic in those instances, and it could be felt in the structure itself. Near the end of the game, the whole crowd was singing along with the Nordecke, punctuating each chant with proud shouts of “CO-LUM-BUS!”
It’s one thing to have a magical game day experience, but this has been carrying on well outside of MAPFRE Stadium. Over the last several weeks, the groundswell of local support has been readily apparent. Now that I’ve found a Crew SC hat that fits my Barry Bonds-sized noggin, it’s amazing how many random Crew SC conversations I’ve had with strangers around town. It’s happened at the grocery store. It’s happened at the hospital, where a nurse asked me if I had watched the second Montreal game, then told me how her husband paced their living room through the whole match because he couldn’t bear to sit still.
This past weekend, it happened at a Wendy’s in West Virginia. My girlfriend and I stopped to grab a quick bite to eat while on a quick down and back trip to North Carolina, whereupon we encountered some traveling Clevelanders who saw my hat and wanted to talk about the Montreal game and the upcoming Sunday match against New York. While having lunch on Monday with a friend, the next table over saw we were both wearing Crew SC gear and proceeded to ask us if we were at the New York game the night before. The older couple told us how they froze their hands and feet off but it was totally worth it.
This stuff is happening with regularity now, and not just to me. I’ve spoken with other fans who are experiencing the same thing. Before, it used to be if you were wearing Black & Gold, a restaurant server might ask if Crew SC had a game. If you said yes, they’d ask if they won. Then they would politely smile or frown based on the answer, and then that was that. Now people seem to know the result and want to know if you were there. It’s a subtle but important shift.
The players feel it too.
“People are fired up,” said Wil Trapp. “They like winners, man, and when you’re winning, it’s great. The way we’ve been playing and the results have come through, I mean, the 5-0 win on Decision Day was a great way to step into the playoffs, and the last playoff game here (vs. Montreal) was an exciting match, so we are garnering more and more excitement for the people around Columbus and it’s showing in the crowds that are coming out.”
“I was driving and saw a billboard that said ‘Good luck Crew SC’ or something along those lines,” added Michael Parkhurst. “It’s a nice to see. There’s a buzz around the city.”
As Parkhurst noted, this past week, there have been electronic billboards around town wishing Crew SC luck in the playoffs. These were not paid advertisements. These were legitimate reflections of civic pride. A friend also showed me a picture of a COTA bus that had “Go Crew” on the front marquee instead of the name of the bus route.
It’s amazing to think that this club drew barely 9,000 fans for a playoff game just last year. The transformation has been stunning. Surely the fact that this has been the first full year with Andy Loughnane in charge of the business side of the operation has played a role compared to last year, but even if it were just that, it’s still stunning. The new logo really seems to have connected with the community, but more importantly, so has the club itself. The phrase “Authentically Columbus” is one of the club’s brand pillars, but that can come across as nothing but marketing mumbo-jumbo and B.S. business-speak if the club doesn’t truly live it.
They’ve lived it. Whether it’s their community involvement though Give Forward or making local food and beer an essential part of the game day experience, Crew SC has put a lot of focus on Columbus this year. My friend Evonne put it this way during a concourse chat on Sunday—“To me, it’s like they stopped selling soccer and started selling Columbus, and how soccer is a part of what makes Columbus great, which it is.”
This may seem like a small thing, but as the playoffs have ramped up, I think one of the hugest things the organization has done has been to parade the 2008 MLS Cup all over town. For years, that beautiful trophy sat in a glass case inside the lobby of the team’s offices. This fall, Crew SC has made it a trophy for the people of Columbus. It’s a reminder of what the club has done to bring glory to Columbus, and also a shiny and tangible reminder of what the club is fighting right now to do for the city once again. That trophy has been everywhere. It’s been at local businesses, public spaces, and podcast tapings. Blue Jackets players have posed for photos with it. It’s a great joy and source of pride for anyone around town who gets the chance to spend some time with it. The 2008 MLS Cup is now accessible throughout the city and it adds even more meaning and emotion to the chase for MLS Cup 2015.
That adds up to some serious buzz.
“The team is playing well, the crowd’s into it, and we’re trying to put ourselves in position to win another trophy,” Parkhurst said.
And that brings me to daydreaming about an MLS Cup win in Columbus. 2008 wasn’t all that long ago, but there are Crew SC fans who are either too young or too new to ever experience or truly appreciate that thrill. Also, since the 2008 MLS Cup was a neutral site game played in Carson, California, there were so many diehard fans of the Black & Gold that never had a realistic opportunity to experience that moment in person.
If Crew SC and the Portland Timbers hold on to their significant first leg advantages, all of that could change on December 6, 2015. #ForTheCup and #ForColumbus would converge as one on MAPFRE Stadium. “Glory to Columbus” could then possibly become “Glory IN Columbus.”
Players and coaches need to focus. They need to work. Nothing is guaranteed. They need to earn it minute by minute. But the rest of us, we can dream. We can dream #ForColumbus.
Questions? Comments? Cuing up your own Adele in anticipation of hopefully two more postgame celebrations? Feel free to write at email@example.com or via Twitter @stevesirk.